Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Driver at fault for 2015 fatal vehicle-train collision, says NTSB

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found yesterday that the probable cause of a deadly collision between an SUV and a Metro-North commuter train at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y., in 2015 was due to the actions of the SUV driver.

The NTSB's investigation found the driver of the SUV moved her vehicle into the path of Metro-North commuter train 659 on February 3, 2015. The NTSB says investigators found traffic at the Commerce Street grade crossing was congested when the driver entered the boundary of the grade crossing and stopped. The grade crossing warning system activated properly and a gate came down, striking the rear of the Mercedes-Benz ML350. Witnesses said the driver exited the vehicle and examined where the gate hit the SUV. She then got back into the driver's seat and moved onto the railroad tracks and into the path of the oncoming train.

The train hit the vehicle at 51 mph, pushing the SUV 665 feet down the track, while detaching the third rail. The introduction of sparks, flaming debris and fuel into the lead railcar started a fire.

The driver, along with five passengers on the train, died in the accident.

"Sadly, all of the NTSB's work in railroad and highway safety to date did not prevent this tragic accident,'' said Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. "When people see railroad tracks, even at grade crossings, they need to think train, and maintain – or improve – their situational awareness. We recommended risk assessments by companies and agencies, and corrective actions as warranted by the assessment results,'' Sumwalt said. "Any railroad passenger has the right to expect that everything possible is being done to assure their safety."

The investigation found that Metro-North's third rail system was not constructed to fail in a controlled manner or break away when subjected to overloaded conditions such as those involved in this accident. Also, the NTSB says the use of Metro-North's current third rail system may increase the severity of railcar damage and serious injuries at grade crossing accidents.

The investigation ruled out the use of personal electronic devices or drugs and alcohol by both the SUV driver and the train engineer. Traffic signals, the performance of the train engineer and weather and track conditions were also ruled out as issues in this crash. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to suggest the SUV driver unintentionally drove the vehicle forward due to the unconventional design of the SUVs transmission interface.

A link to the findings, probable cause and recommendations are available online. The final report will be posted in several days. The docket for this investigation is available here.